Ernest Christopher Dowson
Ernest Christopher Dowson
‘Life Is A Long Disease Of The Spirit’ Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867–1900)
Poète Maudit of the English Decadence:
Victorian poetry is dominated by the imposing figure of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, and by other luminaries such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
However, as the 19th Century drew to a close, a spirit arose that was counter to the age. We think of the Victorian era as one of Empire, moral rectitude, Anglican and Tory to its roots. It was also a time of prolonged periods of peace, and, as George Steiner posits in his book, In Bluebeard’s Castle, peace may ultimately be anathema to the human soul. To quote Théophile Gautier' ‘plutôt la barbarie que l'ennui’.
And it was to the French that a few Victorians, whose minds had turned inwards languidly, looked for inspiration in poetry: Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire became text-books for this spirit, or, one could say, lack of spirit. Decadence was the name given to this movement – symbolised by a poet whose name, if barely known today, became a template for the poète maudit, the ‘cursed poet’, characterised by the brevity of his life due to the affliction of a life-shortening malady, the sordidness of his existence and by drink, yet also tempered by unrequited love for a young and innocent girl, by the allure of Catholicism and by a tortured nobility even in extremis.
Decadence can be seen as ‘moral weakness’ and this term was applied, at first in a derogatory way, to those poets and writers who turned their backs on the progress of the modern age, writers classified amongst the Symbolist and Aesthetic movements that grew out of a love for Edgar Allen Poe and the Gothic novels of the likes of Matthew Lewis – The Monk. Later writers took up the term with pride to describe themselves.
The masterpiece of decadence was A Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a novel quoted at the trial of Oscar Wilde.
Ernest Christopher Dowson was born to a relatively wealthy family who owned a dockyard on the Thames. By the time of Dowson’s birth the dock was running down, due in large measure to Dowson Senior’s lack of aptitude for business. He was a literary man who cultivated the friendship of the Brownings, Rosetti and Swinburne.
Two overarching factors dominated Ernest’s childhood – the peripatetic nature of his early years, which meant he had little to no formal schooling, and the onset of tuberculosis, probably contracted from his mother.
The lack of schooling left him devoid of knowledge on certain matters and gave him an other-worldly manner. He more than compensated for this deficiency by learning the poetry of the Latin and Greek greats which later informed much of his own poetry.
Tuberculosis (TB), even up to the post-Second-World-War era, was seen as a killer, and, for the Victorians, where the disease was rife, especially in the large cities, whose insanitary conditions and general massing of the populations assisted its spread, it was a literal shadow that lurked in every household, either as a threat, or a reality.
TB afflicted his mother first, and Dowson, as a sensitive child, would have been aware that ‘something was wrong’, even though not confided in by his parents. This, coupled with the decline in his father’s business, cast a pall over his youth. The family, to attempt to provide some alleviation from the illness, took up and began its travels round Europe.
During his later childhood, Dowson began writing verse. The key themes of his poetry throughout his life were death, innocence and unrequited love. Shocking to modern perceptions, Dowson wrote many of his poems about young girls: their fragile beauty, the impending loss of youth, and in some, their early death. This thread ran through much of Victorian life and literature. In pre-Freudian times, it was not seen as sexual in nature, but an ultimate expression of tenderness and love for a soon-to-be-lost innocence.
He managed to scrape into Oxford through his knowledge of Classics and the funding provided by his increasingly impoverished father. Whilst there he made friends with Lionel Johnson, Sam Smith and Arthur Moore. These latter two he counted among his friends until his death.
There too he began his first acquaintance with alcohol. His personality would change from a shy, warm-hearted young man into an aggressive, wild-eyed Mr. Hyde.
He came down from Oxford, and, for want of an alternative, entered into the family business. Still writing verses in a notepad he carried around everywhere with him, he went about the task of trying to sustain his father’s dock through clerking. At some point during this period, he took to frequenting the music-halls of London after work. Each evening he would wander the gas-lit streets from the docks situated in Limehouse up to the West End, where the fun was.
After each evening’s entertainment he would walk back to the offices to sleep off the night’s excess. Around this period too, he began to visit the many brothels of the area – music-halls and brothels being viewed as spiritually close to many Victorians.
Before visiting the West End he would often stop off at a restaurant called The Poland. The owners of this establishment were the Foltinowiczes. There he fell in love with the young daughter of the proprietors. Adelaide Foltinowicz became his Muse for the rest of his life. She was about 14 years old when first they met, he in his early twenties. Dowson was a man of sufficient means – the state of affairs at the docks had not reached their lowest ebb - not unattractive, well-kempt and, to the lowly Foltinowiczes, altogether a worthy suitor for their daughter.
She in turn, did nothing to push him away. It seems she held no great feelings for Dowson, but was happy to allow his presence, flirting with him and chatting between her waitress duties in the restaurant. Later, friends who accompanied him to the Poland, wrote of Adelaide as being altogether unremarkable in appearance or character. Dowson, however, fixated on her, driving himself close to insanity with unrequited love.
Also during this period, Dowson joined the Rhymers’ Club, a disparate assortment of poets who would gather at the Cheshire Cheese Club in Fleet Street. Occasional members included WB Yeats, the Irish poet who later went on to become one of the foremost voices of 20th Century literature and an Irish statesman, and Oscar Wilde. Strictly speaking Wilde never was a fully paid-up member, but would sometimes visit to listen to the conversation, hear some poems and add his own, often acerbic comments.
Another of the Rhymers’ Club poets was Lionel Johnson, the friend from Dowson’s Oxford days: tiny, frail, Catholic, homosexual by inclination and dissolute. Dowson and Johnson would drink into the night, sharing their love of poetry, all the while weakening their fragile constitutions. TB had had, by this time, a hold on Dowson for several years. He would cough blood from his damaged lungs and the knowledge of a doomed existence seemed to make him more reckless with his health than ever. They drank absinthe at Johnson’s shabby apartment nearby.
Absinthe has become synonymous with the decadent period – an aniseed-flavoured drink, green in colour, La Fée Verte, or The Green Fairy, as it is known in French, (Remember the role of the Green Fairy played by Kylie Minogue in Le Moulin Rouge?) absinthe was purported to contain hallucinogenic properties. With the addition of a little water poured in grand ceremony over a sugar-cube with the aid of a special grille-shaped spoon, the mystery and allure of this exotic drink was only enhanced by its taking on a cloudy hue in the glass. The French poets, especially Verlaine and Rimbaud, drank it in liberal quantities, while the artist Degas portrayed its effects in The Absinthe Drinker. Amidst the debauchery, the brothels, the music-halls and stews, Dowson turned to God. The Catholic church in the Victorian period was just beginning to emerge from the shadows of the Anglican. Cardinal John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism came like a lightning bolt to Victorian religious society, which, at that time, was pretty much everyone.
For the decadents, the attractions were more than religious. The decadent held beauty as the highest principle in art, and the Catholic church had beauty in abundance. Beauty is a form of spiritual truth. If religion is not beautiful, it cannot be true, Dowson said later.
Not only had it inspired much of the great paintings since the time of Christ, the churches themselves were full of icons, carvings of the Passion, beautiful banners and decorative work on the ambos and screens alike. John Gray, the poet and close friend of Wilde’s, (there is a putative suggestion he was the inspiration for Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) became a Catholic priest.
The power of the Mass and the mystery of the transubstantiation, allied to the incense and procession, all held a powerful attraction to Dowson. He took instruction was received into the Church on 25th September, 1891 at that most beautiful of English churches, the Brompton Oratory.
Thereafter, even at his most dishevelled and care-worn, he would attend Mass irregularly but frequently.
However, Dowson’s fortune’s were declining. The dock was failing, along with Dowson’s health. Being fluent in French, he did some translation work to assist his dwindling resources. Poems published were insufficient to sustain his life-style, but he produced a play, The Pierrot of the Minute.
The class divide between himself and Adelaide caused conflict with his friends who viewed her as little more than a moderately attractive shop-keeper’s daughter. His friendship with Johnson cooled as a result.
He even went as far as to ask Adelaide to marry him; the timing could not have been more inappropriate as her father lay dying in an upstairs room at the time. She did not take offence, but neither did she accept.
This period from 1892 – 1894, Dowson found a deal of literary success. Not only was he receiving more translation work to do, which helped effect a meeting between himself and Paul Verlaine, but it also supplemented his meagre income from the docks.
However, the extra money went mostly on music-halls, drink and prostitutes. Although his love was for Adelaide, this did not prevent Dowson from coming to an agreement with a prostitute, who became something of a regular fixture in his life at this time.
He contributed to the launch of that great Decadent focal point, The Yellow Book in 1894, founded by Aubrey Beardsley and Henry Holland. Dowson was the principle contributor to the first of the quarterly’s output, providing six poems.
Due to the commitments of the other members of the Rhymers’ Club, attendance dwindled and it effectively came to a natural end.
Then Dowson’s life was overtaken by genuine tragedy. First, his father, in very ill health, died, possibly by his own hand, having overdosed on a sleeping draught. Six months later his mother committed suicide by hanging. It was Dowson who discovered her in her room, having been summoned by a neighbour. Dowson’s naturally gloomy spirits, spiralled down into a deep depression.
Just at the height of popularity of the Decadent movement, as Wilde was enjoying great theatrical success with his plays in the West End, as The Yellow Book grew in renown, and as Dowson was receiving much praise in the literary world, Oscar Wilde was put on trial for gross indecency.
Although Dowson and Wilde were never close, nevertheless Dowson was one of the few whose talents Wilde respected. Dowson in turn, supported Wilde during the trial period and attended regularly, unlike others who immediately disassociated themselves.
The sentencing of Wilde to two years hard labour in Reading Gaol signalled the end of the decadent movement. Fear by association was one reason, and poets and writers in droves, sought to distance themselves both from Wilde and from the movement. John Gray was the most obvious defector.
Dowson began a headlong descent into depravity. Nowadays it would be called a death-wish, but as he knew he was dying fast with TB, the wish and the fact were inextricably linked. He would provoke fights with bigger, stronger opponents, even sustaining a knife-wound to the forehead on one occasion. There is some deep-rooted problem at the core of Dowson’s ever-fragile mind. At a distance of some 100 plus years it can only be speculation, but there are elements in his psyche, the alcoholism, the quasi-paedophilia, the anger, which would point to his being abused as a child. Alcoholism always stems from abuse, as a friend once put it? Possibly. Maybe Dowson abased himself the better to know, and ultimately, confess his sins – another thread in Catholic converts.
Dowson abandoned the dock to the foreman and went to live in High Holborn. His relationship with Adelaide was failing as she became capricious and cool in turns, while he became more down-at-heel in clothing and demeanour.
Under Leonard Smithers’ imprint, The Savoy came out in 1896, which was edited and produced by Aubrey and Mabel Beardsley. Dowson again contributed, but moved to France during this period. He sought escape in the land he loved from childhood and whose language brought him such inspiration.
Dowson in Paris was much like Dowson in England – often drunk, often seen at music-halls and brothels – but he had escaped the oppressive life of Victorian London. He visited Verlaine whose life had followed a similar line to Dowson, and, as a consequence, was in a sorry state both physically and mentally.
Dowson continued corresponding with Adelaide and she responded warmly, at least on the surface of things. The Pierrot of the Minute was finally published in 1897 with drawings by Beardsley, although Beardsley had taken against Dowson, one cause being Dowson’s appearance which was becoming more dishevelled daily.
The expense of living in Paris was proving too burdensome and so Dowson left for Finistère in Brittany. Whilst there he had Verses published to mixed reviews. Friends visited him but he still pined for Adelaide. In a drunken rage or out of jealousy, he attacked a baker and was imprisoned but later released on payment of a small fine after the baker dropped the charges.
Unable to face another winter alone, Dowson returned to England. There he was to confront the fact that Adelaide had become engaged to a tailor who helped out in her restaurant. Bizarrely, Dowson took lodgings above the very restaurant where she worked. Psychologically, this arrangement could not be sustained for long, and Dowson fled again to France, where he reacquainted himself with Wilde who was in exile. The famous anecdote derives from this time: with Dowson attempting to convert Wilde to heterosexuality by having Wilde accompany him to a brothel in Dieppe. Wilde duly obliged but, using an Elizabethan analogy, described the experience as like ‘cold mutton’, but asked that the story be promulgated in England to restore his character!
On 30th September, 1897 Adelaide married her tailor. Dowson left England again, where he had briefly returned, this time for Ireland, although he did send the couple a wedding present.
In January 1898 Dowson returned to London to live in Bloomsbury in a small, dingy flat. His night-time excursions continued, but he would spend the hours till the early morning in cabmen’s shelters where the warmth, tea and companionship did a little to revive his flagging spirits.
But Dowson was now unable to stay anywhere long and his peripatetic life took him again to France where he began imbibing Olympian quantities of absinthe. Only poverty prevented him from being permanently drunk, as his sorry state of financial affairs matched his clothes, his aspect and his teeth, or rather lack of them. If Shane MacGowan were a decadent, he would count himself among the fortunates, as Dowson’s teeth were totally rotten away by years of inattention and poor diets.
He suffered from nightmares both asleep and awake, depression and total lack of energy. His lungs were giving out and he was coughing blood frequently. He took to carrying a revolver.
He met Wilde one last time in Paris, but Dowson was now beyond salvation, and Wilde did not enjoy the meeting and the amusements Dowson tried to provide his erstwhile friend. They parted amicably enough, never to meet again.
Dowson returned yet again to London in late 1899 to lodgings in the Euston Road, to try, unsuccessfully, to settle his financial affairs with the docks. Here he saw in the new century as he had seen out the last, with cold despair. He could not celebrate the optimism in the air, instead he sat in a bar, claret in hand, while the military bands paraded outside.
In January, 1900, he met up with his old friend, Robert Sherard, who was living in Catford. Sherard found Dowson in an execrable state – feeble, severely tubercular and barely able to feed himself. Sherard took him in to live with his wife and two children. At a little after 8 am on February 23rd, his coughing got worse. Marthe Sherard held Dowson in her arms as he uttered his dying words, ‘You are like an Angel from heaven. God Bless You’, and he passed over. He was buried in Ladywell cemetery in Lewisham. As Robert Sheared later observed, ‘He was not of this world or for it.’
Adelaide died three years later of a botched abortion which became infected. She had had an affair with a German lodger and had become pregnant. No consolation, but it looks unlikely Dowson and Adelaide’s married life would have been a happy one, had their union taken place.
And what of Dowson’s poetry? This is certainly his finest and one that places him at the top table of Victorian poets, although the subject matter is beyond the theme of our traditional view of Victorian tastes. A flip précis would be, ‘A man pines for his lover while in the arms of a prostitute’. As Joyce said, Style is Everything. Style here is everything, the Alexandrine form, little used in English verse, but used here by a master.
“Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae”:
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat, Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay; Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet; But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind, Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng, Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind; But I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, all the time, because the dance was long: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. I cried for madder music and for stronger wine, But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire, Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine; And I am desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, hungry for thelips of my desire: I have been faithful to thee Cynara! In my fashion.
Another of his classics:
“They Are Not Long”:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter, Love and desire and hate: I think they have no portion in us after We pass the gate. They are not long, the days of wine and roses: Out of a misty dream Our path emerges for awhile, then closes Within a dream.
He has given the English language Gone With The Wind and Days of Wine and Roses and so much more. Somebody once wrote of Captain Beefheart along the lines of, there may be but one or two days in the year when only Captain Beefheart will do. The same is true of Dowson. Winter is upon us, a languid spirit has descended on our souls, and we seek balm and solace in literature. Light the candles, put on your quilted, velvet smoking-jacket, stick Debussy’s "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" on the gramophone, crack open the ’75 vintage Absinthe, pouring gently over the sugar-cube placed exquisitely atop the silver-engraved grille-spoon, and settle down to read from one of the slim volume of verses he produced in his pitifully short life. Read of unrequited love, the impending loss of innocence of a young girl, death and the maiden. Your wintral thoughts may not be lifted, but you will realise you are in the company of one whose tristesse may match yours.
“Decorations in Verse & Prose”
“The Pierrot of the Minute”
Madder Music, Stronger Wine – Jad Adams ISBN 1-86064-714-6 – I.B. Taurus
Brian Williams – tMx 27 – 11/06
LinksWhy not try: www.absintheonline.com
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